Cultural Anthropology Cycling germany Holocaust and Genocide

One Day at Dachau

I cannot think of anything more representative of the absolute worst that humans are capable of than the words on this gate. Arbeit Macht Frei--Work Makes You Free. How long did these gates stand before the words on them took on the meaning they now have? I can't imagine stepping off of a train, not quite knowing what was in store but fearing the worst, and seeing this phrase.

Regardless of not being from around here, we’re particularly reserved on this bus ride for two reason. The first is that we are still in disbelief at the efficiency of public transit in Germany.

We bought a day pass for the Deutsche Bahn. Since it’s a day pass, it doesn’t need to be validated. Just have it on you and you’re good. If they even bother checking, which weirdly never happened. The pass is also good for the buses, and it really feels like we’re getting away with something as we get on. Once we overcame the intimidation of needed to get around in a country with a native language other than our own, we realized that not only is the transit system incredibly intuitive and efficient…but we also knew all the German we needed to sort it out anyway.

The second reason is our destination. We are making our way to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. The contrast between this destination and our trip so far is palpable. We are currently staying in Munich, which is the capital of Bavaria, which is the most intensely culturally German area we stayed in. I’ve described it as a “German Theme Park,” and it was only half a joke. Southern Germany is more traditional, and it’s perfectly common to see Lederhosen being worn by people who just wear them.

This trip has been amazing so far, with incredible food, awesome people, meeting with a cousin and a friend. We’ve seen so much and had so much fun. We’ve even seen Ocean’s 8 in German at a German movie theater and I’ve had more than one legitimate conversation that didn’t involve any English. This trip is going well.

So today’s destination feels almost like a different trip altogether. Or maybe a reality check. We aren’t being typical tourists during this trip, and this is one of the few “actual” destinations we’ve chosen, and it’s a stark contrast to everything else we’ve been up to.

The German people are oddly reserved when compared to Americans. The stereotype is intimidating screaming coming from burly men and sturdy women. But our experience has been quite the opposite. Everyone is very quiet and keeps to themselves. Even the dogs are minding their own business. When approached, without fail everyone is incredibly warm, even when it’s painfully obvious that they aren’t interested in humoring our 3rd grade equivalency German. It’s been an introvert’s paradise. And we’ve both felt very at home.

And so on this bus ride, we’re probably blending in a bit more than normal. We sit quietly, not making any eye contact despite being incredibly close to our bus mates from time to time. It’s a different kind of emotional bubble here. In America, the bubble is physical. Nod, wave, say hi, blurt out an obscenity, tell someone to find Jesus…everything is ok as long as you don’t get too close. Here…there is no physical bubble. You’ll be packed close on trains and buses, it’s not at all uncommon to share a table at a restaurant with a complete stranger.

But there’s almost no discernible interaction. Walking through crowded streets is a peculiar dance of being completely aware of everyone around you while simultaneously not acknowledging their presence but also working together to not careen into one another. It’s kind of strange, kind of intimidating, strangely cooperative and impressively effective.

On the bus, we’re proper flies on the wall.

The intimidation of sorting out the transit system behind us, we now clearly understand the German announcements for the upcoming stops. We wonder if the Germans are also doing a metaphorical eye roll at the other American tourists who are talking quite loudly and joking about John-F.-Kennedy-Platz. If they’re considered disrespectful, you’d never know it. Or maybe it’s just not such a big deal and it’s my awareness of not being from around here that makes me extra-sensitive to those that reinforce the stereotypes of where I come from.

Regardless, any possible lack of reverence quickly begins to make us feel a bit uneasy. These people are headed to the same place, right? How can anyone feel like joking about a street named for an American president? Or…maybe it’s to ease the growing feeling everyone probably has in their stomachs as we get closer to our destination.

The entire trip, U-Bahn and bus, took about 40 minutes. There’s a stop announced for the Dachau camp. It seems surreal. Julie has been here, I haven’t. I’ve always had an interest in World War II and the Holocaust. To say that I’ve “wanted to come here” almost sounds perverse. But I have. Not specifically Dachau, and not for any kind of creepy excitement. But for the experience of walking through the place. For the education you can only get by walking the grounds of somewhere like this. And to pay respects to the millions of innocent people murdered by the Nazis.

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Dachau may not have the recognition of Auschwitz, but it was the first concentration camp, and the template for all those that came after it.

We get off the bus and it almost seems odd how well this place could blend in. There are signs, sure, but if you’re not looking or didn’t know it was here, you could easily miss it. For me, that somehow adds to the effect.

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Relating what you’re seeing to those prisoners who were in this exact spot is an uncomfortable feeling
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Aerial maps show the layout of what used to stand here

It’s clearly stated that there is no charge for admission. There is a small shop where you can buy things like post cards, reading materials, and dvds, and one of the first rooms has multi-lingual pamphlets to help guide you through a tour. There’s a donation bin for those, but as none are left that are in either English or German, we skip that as well.

The grounds are…eerie. It’s incredibly quiet. Peaceful, even. The amount of people touring the camp somehow seem to detract from the reverence. We keep in mind that we are still only entering; we haven’t yet gone through the iconic gates.

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The remains of the rail track and platform. If this was your stop, chances are you were going to be murdered.

The apparent detraction doesn’t last long. The rail tracks and platform are made more ominous in their ruin. Last year I filmed a documentary about an old rail corridor. You’d never know the impact it had on history unless you wanted to. Is it the same here?

I would like to say no. But…I can’t. If this picture were posted out of context and someone said it was an old rail line and the building in the background were a zoo…I’m not sure I would think twice. The innocence in ruin does belies the horrifying past that played out here, or the insidious precedent they helped to set. This view is like so many I spent researching for just about all of last year. The similarities and contrasts are crushing, and it isn’t until later that I realize why these rails struck me the way they did.

And when you disembarked from the train cars. This is where you were led:

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The original gate was stolen several years ago. Though recovered, it is now on display in the museum. This is a replica.

Arbeit Macht Frei. I don’t think I am alone in finding that phrase chilling. I cannot think of anything more representative of the absolute worst that humans are capable of than the words on this gate. Arbeit Macht Frei–Work Makes You Free.

How long did these gates stand before the words on them took on the meaning they now have? I can’t imagine stepping off of a train, not quite knowing what was in store but fearing the worst, and seeing this phrase. Was it earlier on that they came to be known as the epitome of terror that they now symbolize? Rumors of the terrors at Dachau were known by 1935, and communities targeted by the Nazis had a rhyme:

Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm’

Dear God, make me dumb, so that I do not to Dachau come.

Regardless, more than 70 years later, we, too, stepped through this gate. On our honeymoon. And through the gate, this is what we see:

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New arrivals to the camp were processed–hair cut with shears that pulled hair out in bloody clumps as much as they cut it, stripped naked and herded into mass showers before being sent to claim a camp uniform, often far to big or too small. All of this was a calculated part of the dehumanization process.

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The camp showers, now part of the museum, are pictured as they were on glass slides that look almost ghostly hanging within the room clearly recognizable in the photos.
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Now part of the museum, not all of the past is hidden. The rectangular holes in the pillars used to hold poles that ran from one to the next, like shower curtain rods. These were used for pole hanging–a punishment in which prisoners’ arms were pulled behind their back and upwards, and they were hung by them from the poles. For hours.
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Another glass photograph of prisoners in the shower room. Here you can see not only the emaciation of the prisoners, but also the horizontal poles used for pole hangings.

The main part of the museum takes visitors through several rooms with sequentially numbered displays. When followed, you learn about the rise of Adolf Hitler from Austrian immigrant who hand-painted postcards for tourists to the maniacal tyrant and brilliant-yet-deranged orator who would stand at the head of the systematic murder of millions of innocent people. Visitors then go through exhibits of life in the camp, from the bowls and cups, to the hard labor, to the punishment. It is extensive, thorough, and as far as I’m concerned, it should be a mandatory part of public education.

Dachau wasn’t the biggest concentration camp. It wasn’t a death camp. It’s not the best known or the one with the highest kill count. But it was foundational. The first image in this article is of an engraving that talks about the name Dachau being forever etched in history as standing for all concentration camps that followed. It was established in 1933 as the first concentration camp, housing about 200 prisoners with a, intended capacity of about 5, 000. It was also the only concentration camp to operate continuously for the duration of the Third Reich with the exception of being closed for construction and expansion.

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Roll Call in the Dachau Concentration Camp, End of November 1938–Painting by David Ludwig Bloch, who was interned at Dachau

Dachau served as the template for the organizational and labor structure at Nazi concentration camps under the command of Theodor Eicke. The regulations, permissions, punishments, dehumanization–they were all part of Eicke’s design. Dachau would go on to become a training facility for SS camp guards who would learn Eicke’s system and ruthlessly implement it in other concentration camps across Nazi occupied Europe.

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A table and switch where prisoners were beaten as punishment
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These are not my best photos. I didn’t feel comfortable photographing this but wanted to be able to share it

Although intended for 5,000 prisoners, the facilities could comfortably handle 6,000. Often there were more than 12,000. A Prisoner Report from January 15, 1945 records over 55,000 prisoners in the camp at the time.

In total, there were almost 31,951 prisoners reported to have been murdered at the Dachau camp. Reports and reality differ, and estimates of those killed range to around 45,000. Inconsistent record keeping or partial destruction/incomplete recovery of records mean the true number will probably never be known. The camp recorded the intake of 206,206 prisoners.

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The guard towers stand ominously along the grounds
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Reconstruction of bunks at the Dachau camp
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Prisoners in the Dachau barracks.

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Community washroom in the barracks
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Community toilets in the barracks.
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Here you can see foundations where barracks once stood. In total there were 32.

From the tour of the barracks came the crematoria.

These next images require a disclaimer. They are not graphic, but they are intense. Please do not continue if you are uncomfortable with this topic for any reason.

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“Think later, of we who died here.”

This part was difficult. Difficult to see, difficult to approach, difficult even to comprehend. Dachau was not a death camp. But prisoners were murdered here in massive numbers. I mentioned earlier that the death toll ranges from about 32,000 to about 45,000 prisoners murdered here.

Chelmno, by contrast was a death camp. Its sole purpose was the extermination of its prisoners on an industrial scale–and with horrifying efficiency. In contrast, the death toll at Chelmno is estimated at over 300,000. 45,000 is a terrifying number of people to be murdered in one camp. When I say that despite this, Dachau was not a death camp, I have places like Chelmno, or the figurehead of the Holocaust, Auschwitz in mind. Those murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp complex was around 2.5 million. An additional 330,000 are thought to have died of other causes–malnutrition, disease, and simply being worked to death.

But Dachau is where it started. It was not the first to have gas chambers and crematoria, and many of the prisoners to be immediately murdered were first transported to Hartheim Castle. But on March 17, 1942 it is noted that the area for the crematoria and gas chambers (called Barrack X) was selected.

Walking the grounds past the religious memorials you can feel what you are approaching. In your stomach, in your throat, in your limbs. You know what happened here. A small bridge crosses the Würm River Canal, and there it is.

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This building is noted on plans as Barrack X. Its sole purpose was to murder prisoners.
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Prisoners would first be instructed to undress and hang their clothes inside the fumigation chamber

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Uniforms would be hung inside for fumigation
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Here is the entrance to the gas chamber. The sign says “shower.”
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As we all know, this was no shower. Sometimes prisoners would catch on, other times not. In any event, they were ushered into this room.
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All prisoners inside, the door would be close. Canisters of Zyklon-B would be dropped into these chutes.

Zyklon-B, was a tablet that once exposed to oxygen would react and create cyanide gas. The deaths were horrible:

Death of the people inside the gas chamber occurred after a few minutes as a result of internal suffocation caused by the prussic acid halting the exchange of oxygen between the blood and tissues.

Those standing near the shafts died almost instantly, those who shouted, the old, the sick and children also died a quicker death. In order to ensure that no one remained alive, the gas chamber was not opened until half an hour had elapsed. In periods when the pressure of incoming transports was particularly intense, the gassing time was shortened to ten minutes.

Most of the corpses were found near the door through which the victims had tried to escape from the spreading gas. The corpses, which covered the entire floor of the gas chamber, had their knees half bent, and were often cloven together. The bodies were smeared with excrement, vomit and blood. The skin assumed a pink hue.

–From the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

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The chutes through which the Zyklon-B was introduced
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A closeup of the gas chute. You’ll recognize the grate from the picture of inside the gas chamber.

And, once the murders were complete, the bodies were incinerated.

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Pictured here is the “old crematoria,” which was the first of the four constructed.

Tens of thousands of people were murdered at Dachau. While the Jewish Virtual Library reports that there is no surviving records of the gas chamber facility at Dachau having been used, upon the beginning of the fall of the Third Reich, Nazis began destroying documentation of their crimes. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. These facilities were constructed with the intention of exterminating those groups that the Nazis decided were undesirable.

It is difficult to make it through this memorial. More than once we found ourselves fighting back tears knowing what took place here. It is a grim memorial, but an important one. There is a stark contrast between commemorating something and paying homage to the crimes committed, which is a line not so often seen (or perhaps willfully dismissed) in several cases that have popped up in the United States recently regarding our own unpleasant history.

Here, the line is clear.

In German there is a term called Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It’s a mouthful, and you don’t have to try to pronounce it. But it refers to the collective struggle to overcome the pains of the past. It was coined specifically in reference to the suffering of Germany as it struggled to recover from the Holocaust and rebuild itself as a nation after what had just been committed.

Germans, as a people, are a reserved group. This concept does not quite shine through in your typical whirlwind tour of castles, Lederhosen, copious beer chugging, and “Oompah” bands. It’s not a concept that’s discussed in casual conversation. But it’s there. Everywhere we went in Germany there were memorials to what took place during the Holocaust. This is still within living memory.

My grandfather fought in World War II. So did the grandparents of the mid-30s Germans we encountered on our trip.

The people in Germany may not wear their pains on their sleeves–they aren’t even likely to look directly at you when walking hurriedly straight for you in a crowd of people as you both struggle to navigate a crowded street. But their past is more incorporated into their present than anywhere I have seen in the United States. It is a difficult past, it is a past that every native German must at some point confront. It is a recent past.

While maybe not as outgoing as the American people, the Germans present their past in a way that I think we would all do well to learn from.

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The International Monument, by Nandor Glid, 1968. It depicts skeletons hung from barbed wire.

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

8 comments on “One Day at Dachau

  1. Deb Peterson

    The value of visiting places like Dachau is that when you look at the buildings and the rooms and the things that have survived, you can’t help but imaginatively feel a little bit of what those poor souls felt who were trapped there. As if those physical things can somehow transmit the experience… This is a wonderful post, very sensitive and well-written!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! And you’ve got it exactly right. It’s one thing to learn about events like this from your living room (also important), but it’s something else entirely to go there and catch a glimpse of what they saw and experienced. It’s not for everyone, but I’m grateful to have been able to go and share, and I’m glad you got so much out of this post.

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  4. JBMichael

    Thank you for your article , I’ve not been to any concentration camps ,nor am I kwowingly ( I’m adopted ) Jewish, I have been to Anne Frank’s house and had the opportunity to go to Aushwitz while in Kracow but couldn’t.Also it was literally like $1000 to take the family there from downtown Kracow. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it together at all …..like I did at Anne Frank’s house , until I saw Kitty , her notebook, at the end . Preceded to bawl.I can’t stand that this is part of human history at all

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    • You’re very welcome. It’s a very difficult topic to get into deeply. Learning about it broadly is one thing, but learning the intimate, personal details of what happened is simultaneously intensely fascinating and sickening.
      I’ve been working on digitizing and captioning a conversation my 7th grade class had with Esther Hautzig, who was exiled from Vilna (now in Lithuania) when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, and where some of the earliest Pogroms occurred. When I’m finally done, I can share the link with you if you’re interested in it

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